SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Tiger Woods is not just one of the world's most popular athletes, he's one of its most popular people. He is relentlessly positive, as appealing away from the game as he is on the golf course.
Some of that is his natural personality; some, presumably, part of a calculated (and understandable) attempt to navigate a public life that impossibly asks him to be all things to all people.
Woods glides through the world like one of his shots toward the green; a breathtakingly precise, yet soft-landing approach.
It takes a tough guy to criticize Tiger Woods, to demand more, to square off and to risk the inevitable backlash of challenging such a personality. In the end, you can't really win.
Jim Brown has no such concern, of course, no such fear. His approach to life – particularly in addressing social issues – is like his old football running style. He just squares his shoulders, buries his head and blasts right at you.
That's how Brown, the product of the contentious 1960s, believes it needs to be done; the same way Woods, a far calmer generation later, probably feels his way is best.
Brown recently criticized Woods for being "too politically correct" in not speaking out sooner or with more force when a Golf Channel anchor said opposing players' best bet to stop Woods was to "lynch" him.
"He should have come out right away," Brown told ESPN. "Instead, he waited until it was politically correct (to comment)."
Even then, Woods brushed the entire episode aside.
For Brown, much of the backlash for criticizing Woods was swift and thorough. In some quarters, he was as vilified as the announcer. But as you'd expect, he isn't backing down.
"Someone asked me a question and I gave them an answer," Brown told Yahoo! Sports at a Super Bowl charity golf event this week. "And the answer, I thought, was very thoughtful and very meaningful.
"And if it is understood, a lot of people will go into their history and learn something about who developed this country, who helped develop it, who are the people who made it as great as it is today and at what cost."
Here's the thing with Brown, he asks questions and gives answers that few of us in comfortable positions sometimes want to hear. This includes me.
It's not that you have to agree with him, but simply contemplating his point can take energy, thought and even study in a day and age that prefers instant, simple-minded agreement or dismissal.
But life isn't "Hannity & Colmes."
Brown's point is that in the fade of history the true meaning of lynching had been forgotten.
"Lynching was the weapon of the greatest terrorist group in this country, the Ku Klux Klan," he said. "That was their weapon of choice. So if you don't know that, then you should really become educated because a lot of people have suffered many years because of the sickness of that terrorist organization."
To Brown "evil is evil." To joke about lynching is no different than joking about a hijacked plane on 9-11 orphaning a child, a roadside bomb in Fallujah taking out a Marine's knees, or an explosive-packed car murdering innocent shoppers in some far off land.
It's not just about race, it's about rememberance and perspective. It's a point that, at the very least, makes you stop and think.
Woods has been criticized for not being as socially outspoken as many great athletes of Brown's era. Clearly, Woods has the kind of immense power that was unattainable a generation ago.
His response is that he is socially active through his charities, which is a fair point. And he certainly doesn't have to apologize for not being Jim Brown or thinking like Jim Brown.
Brown has no more the final say on this than anyone else. If Woods thought Kelly Tilghman's two-week suspension was enough and this was, indeed, no big deal, then that's fine.
But Brown certainly can have a say. The worst thing that happened from the lynching fallout was some of the instantaneous, outright dismissal of everything Brown and others articulated.
The powers that be, especially in golf, wanted no part of looking in their sport's historical (or current) mirror. So they rallied with a simple message, "Just move on, it's no big deal, just an innocent mistake."
It would seem that at least some in the golf establishment and some of its lock-step media were as angry with Golf Week at attempting to continue the debate than the magazine's terrible choice of cover art.
But that's always the moneyed-power reaction; kill all discussion, protect the status quo. Woods – knowingly or not, purposefully or not – became their perfect spokesman on the issue.
That's Tiger's right, of course. But doing what Brown demanded – examining the past, educating people to history, challenging Woods' approach and opinion – can never be a bad thing either. Even if it becomes rarer and rarer in a sports world now mostly devoid of socially outspoken stars.
"(Athletes don't speak out today) because the most difficult part of the struggle is over," Brown said. "Now an African-American athlete can enjoy pretty much everything that everyone else can enjoy.
"When you are in an era when you can utilize the fruits of someone else's labor, it takes a thoughtful person to think the battle still goes on, the struggle still goes on and there (are) still barriers that we still have to break down."
At age 71, Brown refuses to stop challenging athletes to think about the world outside of endorsements, parties and public relations. No matter how much it costs him in all of those things.
"That's the life I live," he said. "The life I live is to try to be a part of change. A lot of youngsters, once they become educated they become advocates. They really try to do the right thing."
It's too simplistic to say Brown's approach is always right or always wrong; just as it would be to say about Woods'. Both have their merits.
Here's what is wrong in discussing race in America: taking the easy route and just say be quiet, just say it's over and no one cares anymore, to just say the other side's opinion has no merit or meaning.
The thing is, it takes courage to listen.
Jim Brown, no doubt, has that courage; the courage to fight even against an overwhelmingly popular conventional wisdom articulated by no less than Tiger Woods.
Maybe, in the end, he changed few minds in golf or anywhere else, but America remains a better place because Jim Brown, all these years later, keeps trying to fight these mostly un-winnable fights.
- Tiger Woods
- Jim Brown